Tour Recap: Good Eggs Food Hub

Posted admin Post
 

New York City–often portrayed as a world capital of takeout–has seen a boom in recent years in cooking at home as the “foodie” craze has ramped up. Still, New Yorkers have ways of keeping their favorite part of takeout–the delivery–as a central feature of home cooking. Grocery delivery services have become a major force in New York’s food distribution system, an increasingly crowded field dominated by companies like Fresh Direct, Amazon’s Amazon Fresh, Instacart, and Peapod.

On August 3rd, Open House New York organized a tour of Good Eggs, a Brooklyn-based online food delivery service in East Williamsburg operating at the opposite end of the scale. Good Eggs bills itself as a “farmers’ market meets online grocery,” and has taken on the mission of connecting smaller regional and local farmers and food producers to the urban market.

IMG_4771

Good Eggs’ Brooklyn food hub was located in a warehouse in East Williamsburg, near the Newtown Creek. (Photo: OHNY)

As Open House New York learned on an earlier tour to the Hunts Point Produce Market, the scale of operations at the city’s food distribution center in the Bronx is such that many smaller producers cannot compete; they simply cannot provide their products in large enough quantities to do business with the wholesalers that supply so much of the New York’s food. As Produce Market manager Myra Gordon lamented at the time, this is despite the fact that produce wholesalers are seeing soaring public interest in purchasing locally produced food—a greater priority for more people, Gordon observed, than organics.

Good Eggs was founded in 2011 to take advantage of the connectivity that the internet makes possible. After establishing a foothold in San Francisco, the company expanded, opening local food hubs in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. The Brooklyn outpost had a markedly youthful feel, especially compared to more established, large-scale distribution centers like those in Hunts Point. The space, large and bright, was designed for maximum flexibility, with very few fixed features.

IMG_4801

The humble plastic bin is the central organizing unit of organization within Good Eggs’ distribution system. (Photo: OHNY)

The tour, led by Good Eggs’ marketing director Summer Rayne Oakes, began in the morning, shortly before deliveries began coming in. As things picked up, employees began to rearrange metal racks containing hundreds of plastic bins, rapidly transforming the open central area of the warehouse into a temporary repack room. Before long, the bins were filling up with everything from fresh produce to locally manufactured frozen foods. Good Eggs kept almost no food at the warehouse on a long-term basis; the facility served only as a distribution center, taking in perishable goods that had already been sold, packing items together to fulfill orders, and sending the food right back out as quickly as it came in.

IMG_4820

Over the course of the tour, employees rapidly transformed the open central area of the warehouse into a temporary re-pack room. (Photo: OHNY)

Oakes noted that Good Eggs’ model was very hands-on, and that the operations team at the Brooklyn food hub worked closely with the vendors that sold on the company’s online site to ensure that the platform was a good fit. Once a vendor had established an online presence, Good Eggs then helped them to expand their reach, both through the sale of new products and through growth beyond the immediate area. The company was committed to minimizing food waste, and a surplus or shortage at one food hub could mean an opportunity for a vendor to think bigger. “Every food hub goes through cycles,” Oakes said, “so we do trade things with other [Good Eggs] hubs. We also try to give food makers opportunities to spread their wings and test out expanding into different markets.”

IMG_4777

“The idea of moving from a technology company to a food distribution company, as the business evolved, was a huge shift,” explained marketing director Summer Rayne Oakes, center. (Photo: OHNY)

Face-to-face interaction is as a cornerstone of the food industry, and it was no different at Good Eggs. Even for a technology company focused exclusively on online sales, Good Eggs relies heavily on these same kinds of direct relationships with their vendors on the back end. “The idea of moving from a technology company to a food distribution company, as the business evolved, was a huge shift,” Oakes explained.

Sadly, despite its best efforts, Good Eggs had difficulties making this shift successfully—at least in New York. Just two days after the tour, the company’s founder announced the abrupt closure of the food hubs in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and New Orleans, refocusing efforts on Good Eggs’ home market of San Francisco. According to founder Rob Spiro’s blog post explaining the decision:

What we didn’t fully understand when we started was that we were creating a new category that required a different approach to supply chains, logistics, and commerce – all of the pieces of getting food from local producers to the kitchens of our customers…The single biggest mistake we made was growing too quickly, to multiple cities, before fully figuring out the challenges of building an entirely new food supply chain. We were motivated by enthusiasm for our mission and eagerness to bring Good Eggs to more people. But the best of intentions were not enough to overcome the complexity. Today we realize that in order to continue innovating in San Francisco, our original market, in order to continue figuring out all the complexity that is required to achieve our mission, we cannot productively maintain operations in other cities.

IMG_4814

Insulated packs allowed Good Eggs to deliver food kept in its huge industrial refrigerator directly to customers’ doors without breaking the cold chain. (Photo: OHNY)

With Good Eggs gone, a creative link between customers and vendors has been severed, reducing access to locally produced food despite surging demand. This will inconvenience customers but, as Eater detailed in an article shortly after the news broke, it will have an outsize impact on the vendors that came to rely on Good Eggs’ platform—especially the small producers that scaled up their operations at Good Eggs’ suggestion. It further underscores the high level of risk involved in running a food business, especially at smaller scales.

For these businesses, the high costs of the ‘final mile’ in the urban food distribution chain can often prove prohibitive, and there’s not likely going to be a simple solution. As with many systemic challenges facing the city, the answers to the question of how to connect New Yorkers to local and regional food will necessarily be as varied and complex as the city itself.

Tour Recap: Union Square Greenmarket

Posted admin Post
 

“These two acres,” says Greenmarket director Michael Hurwitz, standing in the center of Manhattan’s Union Square Greenmarket, “represent 18,000 across the region.” Hurwitz, who was addressing a group that gathered at the market on July 29 as part of Open House New York’s The Final Mile series, was referring to the footprint of agricultural land taken up by the farmers who sell their wares at the largest of the city’s Greenmarkets. That footprint, illustrated on a map in the market info tent that morning, stretches 250 miles to the north, 175 miles from east to west, and 120 miles to the south. Within it are produced more than 13,000 varieties of products on sale at the Union Square Greenmarket on any given market day.

IMG_4662

Greenmarket director Michael Hurwitz (center, in the black shirt) started the tour off near the market info tent bright and early, at 8am, so that people could observe the market just as things were getting into swing. (Photo: OHNY)

The offerings weren’t always so complex. As the city’s main produce distribution center migrated to Hunts Point in the Bronx starting in the 1950s, New York increasingly relied on large-scale industrial agriculture and manufacturing for its food supply. Within just a few decades, there was enough concern over the widening disconnect between the city and its agricultural hinterland that the first Greenmarkets were created in 1976 to improve access to the urban market for regional farmers.

IMG_4667

“These two acres,” says Hurwitz, “represent 18,000 across the region.” (Photo: OHNY)

The very first market was located in Midtown, on 59th Street, and featured just twelve farmers. By 11:00 in the morning, Hurwitz told the group, the market was sold out. That this happened so quickly surprised even the organizers. The farmers on site asked, half-jokingly, if there was some kind of famine in the city that they hadn’t heard about.

IMG_4676

Peaches were in season, and the Greenmarket team gave a fresh, juicy peach to everyone on the tour—a welcome treat in the July heat. (Photo: OHNY)

Over time, the Greenmarket system, which is administered by the non-profit GrowNYC, has grown to encompass more than fifty markets at sites in all five boroughs. While most are not as robust as the one at Union Square, the network represents a critical piece of the city’s food system, as it provides small and mid-sized farmers and other producers with affordable access to the booming urban market. While interest in local food is soaring, the scale at which many of the wholesalers in places like Hunts Point operate is prohibitive for many local producers, which has created a gap between demand and supply. The Greenmarket system is playing a significant role in filling that gap.

IMG_4697

Radishes and carrots stacked high at a produce stand near the 15th Street entrance to the square. (Photo: OHNY)

To do so, though, requires a great amount of attention to detail. Hurwitz and his team work hard to create a sense of balance in their markets, allowing for a healthy amount of competition without creating a situation where one market or another is flooded with too-similar products. Different vendors are selected for in-demand spots at Union Square with an eye toward variety as much as quality. Once vendors are in place, the Greenmarket team works closely with the proprietors to help them navigate the demands of selling in a sophisticated urban market.

IMG_4683

“To do well here, you need to be a good farmer, a good marketer, your own distributer; you have to offer great customer service. There’s a lot to keep on top of.” (Photo: OHNY)

“To do well here,” according to Hurwitz, “you need to be a good farmer, a good marketer, your own distributor; you have to offer great customer service. There’s a lot to keep on top of. The display of a stall has to be strong—that’s their storefront, right there.”

IMG_4718

Andrew Coté speaks to the group about his business, Andrew’s Honey, which has apiaries across the city. (Photo: OHNY)

Hurwitz introduced the group to several of the vendors throughout the market, including Andrew Coté, of Andrew’s Honey fame. A fourth-generation beekeeper, Coté spoke with enthusiasm about the recent completion of a rooftop apiary just a few blocks north of Union Square, within sight of the market. Andrew’s Honey has apiaries across four of the five boroughs, and the jars displayed at the market stall featured decorative covers proudly displaying the name of the honey’s neighborhood of origin. An employee offered samples on tiny spoons, encouraging passersby to taste the difference between Bedford-Stuyvesant and the East Village.

IMG_4727

Passersby are encouraged to taste the local flavor. (Photo: OHNY)

Coté also explained the infrastructural reasoning behind the lack of full five-borough coverage: bridge tolls. As it turns out, the cost of a ride over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge is just high enough to make the transportation of honey uneconomical.

IMG_4729

Jars of locally produced honey are labeled by neighborhood. (Photo: OHNY)

Hurwitz also took the group to the market stall that houses Ronnybrook Dairy Farm. This third-generation family farm (83% of Greenmarket farmers own farmland) sells milk, ice cream, yogurt, and butter at Greenmarkets around the city. While discussing the ins and outs of life at the market with Ronnybrook’s Tom Toigo, Hurwitz impressed upon the group the importance of that age-old real estate maxim in the way that the market is laid out: location, location, location. “The number one thing [that influences a market’s success] is existing foot traffic. Nothing can beat that,” Hurwitz explained. Toigo agreed, noting that his booth was once relocated slightly while the city worked on the renovation of the north end of Union Square and had a measurable drop in business that week. “People were coming up afterward and asking, ‘Where were you last week? I missed you,’” Toigo chuckled. “Well, we were right there! All you have to do is make a left!”

IMG_4743

Ronnybrook Dariy Farm’s Tom Toigo speaks to the group at the end of the tour. (Photo: OHNY)

The ephemeral nature of the city’s Greenmarkets—the rapidity with which they appear and then disappear on market dates, the way that they shift, grow, and contract with the seasons—is part of their charm. But don’t let their human scale and social nature fool you; these markets are a significant economic force, collectively doing more than $200 million in business each year. They are also helping to strengthen regional and local agriculture by creating reliable access for farmers. “These are vital places of business,” Hurwitz told the group. “The children of our farmers see that they have a real economic future here.” IMG_4755